The Digital Divide: Exchanging Wisdom across Generations

The Digital Divide: Exchanging Wisdom across Generations

Many, many… have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now… You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as some day, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.” —A mentor to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye


When my son was in his twenties, I enlisted him to help me learn the complexities of a new computer. Sitting next to me, he noticed the anxiousness and impatience in my voice, and I realized there was more going on than my anxiety about a computer. I heard his crisp words: “Just relax. Don’t panic, Dad; one thing at a time.” I had an instant flashback: I’m seeing myself, as clearly as yesterday, next to my son on the front seat of my car, saying those same words to him as he clutches, shifts, and brakes, anxiously learning to operate a stick shift transmission, just as his two older sisters had done before him.

Could this moment of frustration morph into a moment of intimacy? I paused, recalling how my own father would pull back in such tense moments. Could I discover a new dimension to this craft of fathering in my fifties? I found myself telling my son of the flashback. We laughed and embraced. Then we proceeded with the task.

When is the younger the elder? So quickly the apprentice-mentor role reverses itself. No one has ever been an elder in the twenty-first century. So we cannot say, “This is how it is in your twenties,” because no elder was ever a youth in the twenty-first century.

When life expectancy was only 35, midlife began at puberty—imagine that! You were an elder in your teens. You were still getting into mischief. Look at Jacob and Esau tricking each other and Jacob deceiving his dying father Isaac to get his brother’s blessing. Youthful “pilgrims” rebelled against their parents by leaving Europe for the Americas in the 1600s. Recently, Zimbabwe was reported to have the world’s lowest life expectancy—34 for men and 37 for women.

Let’s say “midlife” is still the time for becoming an elder. But what is midlife in the twenty-first century in Western countries? If 70 is the new 50, is 50 the new 30? Or is it the other way around: is 20 the new 40—younger mentoring older in understanding pop culture and high-tech worlds of iPods, mp3s, blogs and texting? What if we turn such questions on their head? When is the younger the elder?

However, this is not just about elders learning from techies. A 17-year-old in a refugee camp, whose parents died of aids, is now in charge of the care for her three remaining younger siblings. I call that young woman an elder in experience. I would be awed in her presence and learn from her suffering.

When the teacher is ready. The paradox of being an elder today invites us to a new paradigm of a mutual exchange of wisdom: mentoring and being mentored by younger generations, who are the “natives” in a changed world.

No longer can elders pour wisdom into the lives of the young. Rather, a wise elder discovers creative ways to connect and learn with younger journeyers as together they explore issues across cultures.

“When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear,” runs the ancient proverb. But try turning it on its head: “When the teacher is ready, the pupil will appear.” It works both ways. If you befriend your own inner questionings as an edge of growth, you may be amazed at how seekers will appear on your doorstep as your teachers.

I say to those over forty, create safe spaces for listening with youthful seekers and it will be life-giving for you. I say to those under forty, lots of dislocated older folks would treasure a safe youthful mentor to converse with and learn from. I say to both, cultivate ways to connect with the struggles and questions within yourself then you will be a safe person for any yearning soul.

The digital divide in four generations. A teacher tells me of preschool children who explain to their parents how to activate the parental controls for the child’s computer!

A totally new cultural phenomenon has occurred in our time that makes today’s demographics unprecedented: four generations are living and working together simultaneously. In their groundbreaking book When Generations Collide, Baby Boomer Lynne Lancaster and Generation Xer David Stillman describe these four generations and show their clashes and gifts as they interact in the workplace.

I’ve adapted Lancaster and Stillman’s four categories, although their generalizations invite lots of crisscrossing, especially across layers of races and cultures. By eavesdropping on their conversations we can gain powerful insights into mutual mentoring for our families and religious communities.

Traditionalists (1900-45) place their greatest value on loyalty and tend to express their allegiance in commitment to a lifetime career: “the legacy of a job well done.” You may save up your vacation for extra retirement income; family and self-care often come in a poor second to work, making it hard to understand the Xer and Millennial mindset.

Boomers (1946-1964) value success and achievement, expressed in pursuing an outstanding career: “money, title, the corner office.” Boomers, like their traditionalist elders, value task over relationships, while making connections for a promotion.

Generation X (1965-80) value relationships over the boss’s approval and choose portable careers based relational concerns: “Freedom and adaptability, work in Chicago from L.A.” “Everybody’s in this together” explains an Xer’s faux pas of failing to alphabetize the team names in email memo. Instant Boomer reaction: “Insulting! So-and-so spent decades getting to be manager, only to see some new guy’s name ahead of his.”

Millennials (1981-present) value meaning with a sense of purpose and they adapt parallel careers: “Multitasking work that has meaning for me.” Millennials take on several projects simultaneously that tap their passion and purpose. And they value process over finished product. For example, in the movie The Social Network, business-minded Eduardo Saverin explodes at Mark Zukerberg about the sluggishness of Facebook project, “So when will be it finished?” Zukerberg says, “It won’t be finished. That’s the point. The way fashion’s never finished.” One of the things my task-driven generation learns from the tech generation is that life often does not have a finish line; several major projects may be developing simultaneously. (Kierkegaard worked that way with his writing projects.)

This description of the generational puzzle provides a laboratory for learning for spiritual seekers and religious leaders. For purposes of Clergy Table Talk, I’ll refer to these as “older generations” and “younger generations.” Many Generation Xers along with their younger millennial siblings grew up as natives in the new digital landscape: they view the smart phone with its apps in their hand as an extension of their body.

The real generational crisis: radical opportunity. Everyone knows mainline churches (yes, even Southern Baptists according to Diana Butler Bass) face a demographic crisis. But I say statistical extinction is not the issue. Rather, it’s a spiritual crisis. The problem is not whether church as we know it exist in the 22nd century. Rather the crisis is that my generations are missing out on God’s work in our lives by failing to welcome new generations as our teachers. I must intentionally draw on my Christian roots as we explore.

From modern to postmodern to primodern. Compare the traditionalist “slug-it-out, back-to-the-daily grind” work ethic to younger generations’ value of relationships, and spontaneity in work that has meaning and purpose. Can we integrate older generations’ value of lifelong commitment and rational concepts (modernity) with the spontaneity and portability of the younger generations (postmodernity)? I call it primodern, because it integrates our modern learnings with our primal yearnings (see Chapter 14).

From paternalism to partnership. Among younger generations there’s a movement from paternalism to partnership, and understanding before acting. This fits with the idea of purpose and meaning: why would you spend good time helping people do something they don’t want? Or why would you try to give people a good thing without understanding their culture first, so that indigenous leaders could interpret and implement the project?

For example, in attempting to introduce common Western vaccines in African countries, traditionalist generation leaders failed to consult the African elders. The project failed because the “do good” Americans failed to explain the need and win the support of the elders first.

What other cultural institution has the potential for mining the spiritual reciprocity of learning from each other from preschool through retirement?

Obstacles to mutual mentoring. If the reciprocity of learning among generations is important, then what are some of the obstacles that keep us from investing in each other?

Preconceived stereotypes. Not all youth are restless or socially concerned, and not all elders are tradition-bound prigs. Some youth are more conservative than their elders, politically or theologically. Many elders, who “played it safe” in working years for the sake of career or family, now feel they’ve got nothing to lose by getting politically active in later years. I value cultivating a few edgy friendships on the cultural right as I do edgy friendships on the left.

Fear of being perceived as patronizing. “Most elders I know back off, or at least don’t risk trying to relate to young adults, because they don’t want to be perceived as patronizing or paternalistic. And, honestly, I don’t know a lot of youth who feel it’s worth taking their time to connect with elders,” a midlife parent told me.

Fear of being perceived as dumb. “A barrier for me in connecting with younger people,” said a 72-yearold woman, “is fear of showing how little I know.” Maturing as an elder does not mean achieving perfection; that would turn off young generations. Rather, it means being real. Tech generations are not care if God exists; rather is God real? The same goes for any relationship: Is this person real?

A multigenerational team was meeting with their new department director, an African American, as Lancaster and Stillman tell it. “As the employees were getting to know their new boss, the Generation Xer piped up: ‘I’m never sure what the right terminology is. Do you consider yourself black, African American, or a person of color?’” Traditionalists and Boomers were stunned and embarrassed. “To their relief, the African American boss actually thanked the Xer and gave a thoughtful response.” Older generations’ fear of lawsuits, coupled with looking stupid, made talk about diversity a thing to avoid rather than learn from. The story leads into the paradox integrating the transparent spontaneity of youth with the serious lifelong commitment of elders.

Playful yet serious: the youth in the elder, the elder in the youth. When Adam Werbach was the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club at age 23, he related “a cautionary tale for our times.” Researchers, he reported, went to a preschool and asked the youngsters, “Who knows how to sing?” Everyone’s hand shot up. “Who knows how to dance?” They waved their hands. “Who knows how to draw?” Again, all hands up. Fast forward a week and the researchers posed the questions to college students. “Who knows how to sing?” A few hands were raised. “Who knows how to dance?” Two hands went up halfway. “Draw?” No response.

Somewhere between preschool and so-called “higher” education we lose track of vital means of self-expression. No wonder—pun intended!—we resort to violence. Dancing, drumming, drawing, and dreaming get squeezed out of us.

To advance spiritually means returning to a childlike habit of mind in all religious traditions. “The great person is one who does not lose the child’s heart,” writes Confucian leader Mencius in the third century B.C.E. When Jesus tells a Jewish teacher Nicodemus that “to see” the realm of God he must be born again, Nicodemus takes Jesus literally: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” The Sufi Muslim poet Hafiz asks God to “take care of that / Holy infant my heart has become.”

We can create playful projects for serious purposes. “The best scientists are those who retain the somewhat naïve curiosity of a child,” says Margaret Geller, chief scientist at the Smithsonian Astrological Observatory. “They see the world with a special eye.”

Paradigm: the youthful Jesus teaching the elders. The Luke’s Gospel offers an archetype of the “the elder in the youth.” Jesus, at age twelve, worries his parents sick that he’s lost in the crowd. “After three days, they find him in the temple among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47). The story is a paradigm of the Jungian dream archetype of “the precocious child,” pointing to why scientists often make discoveries in a playful, spontaneous moment. The story is also a paradigm of how listening to stories and asking questions act as a shuttle to weave our conscious and unconscious selves together, and to connect the generations.

In Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot, Richard Restak says, “You can enhance your creativity by playfully altering your perceptions and trying to look beyond the obvious, most practical interpretations of what you see around you.

Alexander Fleming’s lazy lab students, by neglecting to clean the moldy Petri dishes, became his unwitting mentors. Fleming’s surprise discovery of penicillin is still healing generations.

In young adulthood we need “guarantors of our identity,” Erik Erikson says in his classic Childhood and Society. And later years we need to experience “generativity” by conferring that kind of identity and self-reliance on younger people. What if it works a bit both ways? Is that not a beautiful reciprocal arrangement?


Spiritual Practice 12. Contemplating Qualities of a Child

Find the lyrics to the child’s lullaby “Hush Little Baby” (don’t you cry). Or listen to Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin’s version on their CD Hush as they have fun, counterpointing classic ’cello and pop styles. Have pen and paper ready. Pause. Contemplate childlike qualities. Begin to write words, phrases or images of childlike qualities—or draw smiley faces, sad faces, or stick figures jumping, kneeling, or dancing. You might let a poem emerge. Find a way to name these childlike qualities with another person or in a group.

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